Review: The Nest ~ theatre notes

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review: The Nest

A fascinating phenomenon over the past few years has been the revival of naturalism as a theatrical force. For years, commentators divided Australian theatre into two strands: "naturalism", the accepted form of the mainstream or proto-mainstream; and "non-naturalism", which covered everything from mime to Barrie Kosky. Naturalism was linked to the so-called "well-made play", in which theatre did its best to imitate the conventions of television. Non-naturalism had a suspicious internationalism about it, and was best left to the Europeans or people who dressed exclusively in black and lived in Fitzroy.

This did theatre no favours, since the artform overspills such simplistic binaries. And not unsurprisingly, this binary - which also masquerades as the division between the "mainstream" and the "fringe" - has been collapsing, along with many other theatrical truisms, over the past decade. It's worth remembering, however, how recent this collapse is: only three years ago, critic Hilary Glow argued in her book Power Plays that naturalistic, character-based drama was a defining form of the "mainstream".

The state theatre presence of artists like Benedict Andrews or Tom Wright is a telling symptom of this shift. Just as telling is as the fact that some of the most interesting independent work around Melbourne in recent years - ranging from Beng Oh's production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's Tom Fool at Hoy Polloy, to floogle's production of Duncan Graham's Ollie and the Minotaur, to Daniel Schlusser's theatrical reworkings of classics - has been re-examining naturalism. Which brings me to The Nest, Hayloft's exquisite version of Maxim Gorky's first play, The Philistines.

Written by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, The Nest at once returns naturalism to its radical, poetic roots, and liberates it into the present. It's an impressive work of adaptation: Hardie and Sarks have cut Gorky's unwieldy two and a half hour drama back to a finely-honed 90 minutes, filleting out its essentials from Gorky's baggily structured original. In doing so, they have created a piece of theatre that situates itself convincingly in contemporary Melbourne, while at the same time retaining an unmistakeable sense of Russianness, an achievement which almost feels like sleight of hand.

The Nest is a scathing indictment of a bourgouis family, which in Gorky's original play is a metaphor for Tsarist society on the brink of the Bolshevik Revolution. Here it's shifted, with a surprising aptness, to middle class Australia: a generation that defined itself through stability, security and authority is threatened by a world of bewildering global and technological change. Anti-globalisation protests are not quite the 1917 Revolution; the Revolution has already happened. And this is key to the poignancy of this adaptation, in which the shadow of the past is a dark smudge beneath the present.

The action revolves around Victor (James Wardlaw), in this version a widower, who is the miserly and viciously angry father of Tanya (Julia Grace) and Peter (Benedict Hardie). Victor is embittered and bewildered by his loss of authority over a rebellious new generation - his children and their friends, his young lodgers, even the maid. His avariciousness extends to his children: unable to let them go into adulthood, he finds he is equally unable to keep them. He is desolatingly lonely: some of the most powerful moments of the evening feature Victor alone in his house, tidying up the kitchen in rubber gloves, punching uselessly at the buttons of an iPod to turn off the music his children have left carelessly blaring through the house, or sitting emptily in his patriarchal seat in the dining room.

The Nest isn't simply about the divisions between generations; it is also about the profound connections - of habit, affection, grief, memory - between them. The young are as lost as their elders are, falling into patterns of which they are not even conscious. It's clear, for instance, that for all his rebellion against his father, Peter will follow in his footsteps. That these complexities play so beautifully is a tribute to the Hayloft ensemble: this is a strong, focused cast, each member of which deserves mention, and the various characters are played with beautiful emotional detail.

Claude Marcos's design sets the action in the round; the audience sits one deep around a wide playing area, dotted with the solid furniture of an old, middle-class Australian house representing a loungeroom, a kitchen, a hallway, a bedroom, a dining room. Russell Goldsmith's sound design unobstrusively heightens this reality with ambient sound and music - passing traffic, bird calls. The imaginary walls and doors are at first meticulously observed in the performances; as the work subtly shifts into a heightened stylisation, the "walls" dissolve, becoming a poignant sub-conscious metaphor for the dissolution of the family.

The audience is almost in the house, visible and invisible just as the walls are. This makes scenes like an impromptu party in the loungeroom intensely direct, almost as if we are at the same party; it's this directness of communication, placing events explicitly in the same social space as the audience, that is the real strength of contemporary naturalism. Anne-Louise Sarks's direction modulates this immediacy with subtle reminders of artifice: this is not theatre that aims to seduce us into an unthinking acceptance of its conventions.

Attention constantly shifts, without apparent effort, from one space to another; as the action progresses, there are more and more simultaneous moments - a couple making love in a bedroom, Tanya swallowing poison in the kitchen, a group on the back verandah - which gives a textured, increasingly powerful sense of individual privacies crossing in a mutual space. It's one of those shows which manages the delicate balance between deep polish, the result of craft and work, and yet in which each moment glows with spontaneous discovery.

Since their first production, in 2007, I've learned to expect a lot from Hayloft: I rather suspect, after Thyestes and The Nest, that my expectation has wound up another notch. Looking over this company's body of work, what's most striking is that they have never repeated themselves, although each project has deepened what appears to be a very singular exploration. Which seems to me the very definition of exciting art.

Pictures: Top: James Wardlaw; bottom, The Nest cast. Photos: Jeff Busby

The Nest, by Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie, after Maxim Gorky's The Philistines. Set by Claude Marcos, costumes by Mel Page, lighting by Lisa Mibus, sound and composition Russell Goldsmith. With Sarah Armanious, Stuart Bowden, Stefan Bramble, Alexander Englabnd, Brigid Gallacher, Julia Grace, Benedict Hardie, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Meredith Penman and James Wardlaw. Northcote Town Hall, Studio One. Until December 19. Details and bookings.


kade said...

Once again Hayloft makes a visceral strike at the hearts of Melbourne theatre goers (this time with a little more heart in Sarks' direction). Oh, and you've said Benedict Andrews wrote the piece with Annie-Lou instead of Benedict Hardie.

Alison Croggon said...

I know. *Hangs head in shame*. But it's fixed up now.

Anonymous said...

What beautiful work in the climax, when all the artifice just fell away, and my heart was left in my throat...